La Frontera Scenic Byway

La Frontera del Llano Scenic Byway (the edge of the plains in Spanish) starts at Abbott, a place you'd think wouldn't warrant a name if there weren't a sign there to prove it. Most of the byway (NM 39) runs through Harding County, where cattle outnumber people seven to one. The county has a population of about 750, less than one person per square mile.

It may seem strange that there is a national forest in Harding County, but it's true. The northern part of the byway runs through the Kiowa and Rita Blanca National Grasslands (505-346-3900), a unit of the Cibola National Forest. This is a forest of grass, the rolling short grass prairie of the southern Great Plains. This vast rangeland accounts for 99.7% of the county.

Driving south through the grasslands, you encounter the small community of Mills, named for Melvin W. Mills, lawyer, rancher , banker, Territorial legislator, and entrepreneur. A sign directs travelers west to the Mills Canyon Campground. The first six relatively flat miles are deceiving. After it leaves flat land, the road enters the Canadian River Canyon and becomes narrow, rocky, and suitable only for vehicles with high clearance.

The campground is located at the site of the Orchard Ranch. In the 1880s, Mills planted twelve miles of land along the Canadian River with melons, tomatoes, grapes, cabbages and 14,000 fruit trees. He built the Mills Canyon Hotel, once a popular vacation spot that serviced a stagecoach line. The water that made the enterprise possible ended it in 1904, when the flooding Canadian wiped out orchards, irrigation system, and buildings. All that can be seen now are the shells of a couple of stone buildings.

Roy, another ten miles south on NM 39, is pretty quiet now, but it once thrived. The Dawson Railway was constructed through the area in 1906 to link Tucumcari to the coalfields in Dawson. During the 1920s and '30s, dry ice was produced here because the town overlies the Bravo Dome carbon dioxide field. Roy was a central shipping point for beans, wheat, cream, and eggs until the Dust Bowl ended most farming in the 1930s. Roy's main streets are lined with buildings from an earlier era, like the red brick Floersheim Mercantile Company. Incorporated in 1897, it was one of the largest mercantile enterprises in northern New Mexico.

Music was a big part of the local social life. The late Roy Self played in a band with the town barber. The barber played the fiddle and was something of a composer, having written a popular tune that he called the "Spanish Two-step". After two years as a full-time barber and part-time musician, James Robert Wills moved to Tulsa, shortened his name to Bob, and renamed his tune "San Antonio Rose". Wills' signature "ahh-ha" would bring Roy's one local policeman running to make them keep the noise down.

Workers constructing the Dawson Railway settled Mosquero, 18 miles south of Roy and the Harding County seat, in 1906. The last cattle trail created by Charles Goodnight, marking the end of his operations in New Mexico, passed through this area. Today Mosquero is primarily a cattle ranching community.

The byway is adorned with a number of beautiful little mission churches. Like a string of pearls they stretch from Solano to Gallegos. Solano's Union Church was built in 1912 of native stone. The coat hooks made of horse shoes in the foyer remind you that you're in ranch country. Its folding wooden seats were taken from the school gymnasium in 1913. St. Joseph's Catholic Church in Mosquero was created from a school and the teacher's house in the 1930s, when a transept was built between the two buildings to join them.

South of Mosquero, the road descends David Hill in switchbacks. The plains, mottled with the shadows of clouds, stretch as far as the eye can see. At the bottom of the hill, NM 102 branches off to the east from the byway. The oldest and most beautiful of the mission churches, Sacred Heart of Jesus, is at Bueyeros (place of the oxen drivers), 18 miles from NM 39. The stone church has turquoise trim and a copper steeple. The wall behind the altar is painted like stained glass, in jewel tones of rose, turquoise, gold, and pink. The altar rail, painted in the same colors, resembles a miniature Victorian fence. The confessional is from Santa Fe's St. Francis Cathedral, and the baptismal is 100 years old.

Back on NM 39, Church of the Immaculate Conception at Gallegos Ranch was built in 1876 and replaced in 1914 with the present building of red sandstone. Large Italian statues stand on its fine altars. All of these churches are kept locked, but neighbors have the keys.

The byway ends 94 miles from Abbott in Logan, best known for Ute Lake State Park on the Canadian River. Its recreational opportunities - camping, boating, picnicking, and fishing - are inviting excuses to linger awhile.